Ra-Tan Lines: Extremities

Posted on: October 10, 2019

Back in the misty days of yore, CGP Grey and Brady Haran changed their professional lives forever by translating their YouTube success into podcast success. Their podcast, Hello Internet, was a harbinger of things to come. These days, it seems that every YouTuber is rushing to the podcast space, creating long-form audio products with a rather different tone and content from their tightly-produced video fare. Some YouTubers have made significant investments in this area: the H3H3 podcast, for instance, has its own branded studio that seems to exist solely to make casual conversations seem more official.

The Extremities podcast is another recent immigrant from YouTube to podcasting. It is essentially the podcast version of the Wendover Productions and Half as Interesting YouTube channels, both of which are made by the always-present but rarely-named Sam Denby. These channels involve a fast-talking host explaining arcane topics (usually involving aircraft) while telling terrible puns. Diagrams and stock imagery slide around, often appearing and disappearing in seconds. Usually a ridiculous joke is used to segue to a sponsorship, the video ends, and the topic is never revisited. A fine couple of educational YouTube channels: Half as Interesting definitely exceeds the expectations set by its name. The other half of my interest is how Denby translated his strengths into long-form audio.
Extremities is much more focused than its parent YouTube channels. Instead of covering a new random topic every episode, Extremities is entirely about remote human settlements. The first series of the podcast, from June of this year, was about the Pitcairn Islands, the smallest permanently-settled ‘country’ on Earth. Then there was a one-off episode about Howland Island, a tiny rock in the Pacific. Currently, Extremities is running a series about Svalbard, the archipelago with the northernmost town on Earth. The podcast covers the history, economy, society, environment and daily life of all these places.
The narrator’s voice has not changed at all from its YouTube incarnation: it still has the pleasant tone and strange word emphasis that any Wendover fan can recognize. Sam Denby talks very, very quickly. Listening to Extremities on higher than normal speed is barely comprehensible: just stick to plain 1x. Most of the episodes consist entirely of Denby monologuing, however certain episodes in the Pitcairn Islands series feature interviews.
The monologues are all clearly scripted. This is not a bad thing because Denby has proven a good script writer in his channels, but is perhaps a bit unusual compared to other YouTubers transitions to podcasting. Extremities is not a casual show where the host does no preparation and speaks off-the-cuff on random topics. Quite the opposite: the research commitment is quite enormous, perhaps larger than Denby’s YouTube channels. First of all he must find good people for the aforementioned interviews. Secondly, as part of the Svalbard series Denby actually traveled to Svalbard to look around.
The listener of course does not get to look around, and instead must listen to Denby looking around while he waxes poetically about the world’s northernmost gas station. The limitation of pure audio also means that unlike on YouTube, there are no diagrams. Extremities usually explains its subjects well enough verbally, and focuses more on human experiences than on math or geography, so diagrams would not be of much help anyway. The lack of stock footage is probably a good thing, as stock photos were always the least interesting part of Half as Interesting.
Although there are some funny moments of narration, in general Extremities is not a humor-focused podcast. Fans of Wendover Productions and Half as Interesting can consider this to be roughly Wendover-level serious, and sometimes even more serious than that. In one case, Extremities even issued a content warning: this was for an episode about child abuse trials on the Pitcairn Islands. It was definitely an uncomfortable topic, but it’s an encouraging sign for the future of the podcast that such sensitive issues could be treated with the gravity they deserved, rather than just glossed over. This isn’t a podcast composed entirely of tourism advertisements: this is a critical enterprise, a search for the truth.

Episodes of Extremities have so far all been 20 to 35 minutes long. When a series is running, new episodes drop every week. As mentioned earlier, it is best to listen at the default 1x speed. Weirdly enough for a podcast, there has been outro music from episode 1 but there isn’t always an intro theme. Not that it matters, Denby’s voice is quite distinctive anyway. Extremities is still very new, so there isn’t much of a backlog. Hopefully the podcast has a long and storied life ahead of it.

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